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Rodney Tom is wrong: Split government isn’t serving Washington State well at all

Yesterday, management at The Seattle Times tacitly admitted they couldn’t bring themselves to endorse the campaign of Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund, who is running to take over from appointee Dino Rossi in the 45th Legislative District. In the apparent place of an endorsement of Jinyoung, the Times today published an op-ed by ex-Senator Rodney Tom extolling the concept of split government.

While Tom’s piece carefully avoids mentioning Jinyoung Lee Englund or her Democratic opponent Manka Dhingra, it’s clear that Tom wants to see an Englund victory — not because he thinks Englund would be a great legislator, but because he wants the Senate Republicans to remain in power in Olympia.

Tom, you’ll recall, delivered the Senate into Republican hands in late 2012 by engineering a power coup with Tim Sheldon of Potlatch. Tom and Sheldon defected from the Democratic caucus to the Republican caucus, allowing the Republicans to become the majority party despite not having won a majority in the 2012 elections.

Tom left the Senate at the end of 2014, having chosen not seek another term. But he remains invested in maintaining the status quo that he created in Olympia.

“It might be easier to have a house with only dogs or only cats — or with only Democrats,” Tom writes. “But I prefer we figure out how to all get along together. That is better for us. It is better for our communities. It is better for our state.”

Huh? If Republicans lose to Manka Dhingra and the Democrats in the 45th, they would be out of power, but not out of the Senate. Regardless of what happens in the election, there is still going to be a Senate Republican caucus with over twenty members. To put it another way: Senate Republicans will still be in the house no matter what. They just won’t get to run the place next year if Manka wins.

Speaking of Manka, she happens to be the most accomplished of the three candidates seeking to become the next senator from the 45th Legislative District. She has an impressive resume and compelling experience for a first time candidate. Jinyoung Englund, meanwhile, is running a campaign devoid of substance.

But Tom clearly cares more about the party banner Manka is running under than her best-in-field qualifications or her ideas for improving Washington State…. which is funny, because I can recall hearing Tom opine that the person is more important than the party while holding forth at Eastside legislative town halls.

What Tom is saying in his op-ed today is the opposite: The party is more important than the person. The unsaid implication of Tom’s argument is that if you’re a voter in the 45th, you should vote for Jinyoung merely so that we can continue to have split government in Washington, which Tom thinks is simply wonderful.

The reality is quite different. Here’s an overview of the evidence that split government has been bad for Washington State.

Split government has resulted in bad budgeting practices

Split government has made Washington State a poster child for fiscal irresponsibility. Since the Senate Republicans assumed power, they have thrice brought state government to the brink of a shutdown (in 2013, 2015 and again this year) in order to gain leverage in budget negotiations.

A damaging side effect of that harmful, self-serving strategy has been a lack of transparency. Because deals to keep state government open have been hammered out at the last minute, with only hours to spare, there’s been little or no time for public input or outside scrutiny on the Legislature’s final work product.

This year, Senate Republicans foolishly decided to make the capital budget a hostage too, and demanded a ransom that Democrats wouldn’t pay. They wanted House Democrats to capitulate on unrelated policy matters before they would vote out a capital budget. Historically, capital budgets have passed out of the Legislature with broad bipartisan support. But not this year.

As a result, the state has no capital budget at all, a sad fact that Tom conveniently didn’t mention in his op-ed (it would have undermined his argument).

Timely, transparent budgeting is the hallmark of a well-run state. Everyone benefits from the certainty of knowing what’s in the budget prior to June 30th, the end of the state’s fiscal year. Local governments and agency leaders in particular have been hamstrung by the Legislature’s failure to agree on an operating budget before the eleventh hour. They’re even more hamstrung by the lack of a capital budget.

“For our businesses to thrive, they need predictability and moderation, not wild swings from left to right and vice versa,” Tom argues.

Split government has produced precisely the opposite of predictability and moderation. Anyone who values those things and believes the dynamics of our Legislature affect our business climate should not be endorsing the status quo.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. That’s an overused cliche, often attributed to Albert Einstein, but it seems applicable here. Senate Republicans have now held power for four and a half years, and we’ve gone to the brink of a state government shutdown three times.

Why should anyone expect that 2019 would be any different with them in charge?

If voters want to get back to sound budgeting practices, they’ll have to put an end to split government by taking away the Senate Republicans’ power.

Split government is killing needed public policy changes

Public opinion research suggests Washingtonians are anxious to see their elected representatives take action on a host of pressing issues, like:

  • fulfilling our state’s paramount duty to amply provide for the education of all young people residing within our borders
  • reforming our upside down tax code
  • reducing the pollution that’s damaging our climate
  • expanding healthcare coverage
  • confronting systemic racism in our criminal justice system

… and so much more.

Sadly, progress has been elusive because the Senate Republicans have turned the chamber they control into a policy graveyard. The House keeps passing good bills, some even with support from the House Republicans, that the Senate Republicans keep on killing, often without so much as a hearing.

Here’s a few examples:

Follow the links, and you’ll see these are bills that received a vote in the House, but died in the Senate. If Senate Republicans were not in power, these bills likely would have received a vote on the Senate floor instead of being blocked in committee.

Split government is stifling discussions on key issues

Split government is also hurting worthy causes that don’t yet have a majority of votes to pass in each chamber, but need discussion and debate.

A great example is abolition.

A growing number of Republicans — including former Attorney General Rob McKenna, State Representative Terry Nealey, and State Senator Maureen Walsh — have concluded it’s time to get rid of the death penalty.

So has The Seattle Times editorial board.

But even though there is growing bipartisan support for such a move, the Legislature is not seriously discussing the idea, because the extremist core of the Senate Republican caucus is so rigid and closed-minded.

Current Senate Law and Justice Chair Mike Padden is a vociferous supporter of state sponsored executions and has used his perch to choke off discussion. He is backed in that stance by top Senate Republican Mark Schoesler.

Seeing that Senate Republicans will absolutely not budge from their immoral hardline position, House Judiciary Chair Laurie Jinkins has concluded it would be pointless for the House to try to advance an abolition bill for the time being.

But if voters give Democrats a Senate majority this autumn, Padden and Schoesler will be ousted from power, and the cause of abolition will at least be given consideration in the Senate as well as the House starting in 2018.

Split government is draining resources and morale

Theatrical, drawn out legislative sessions in which not much gets accomplished have become the norm in Washington State thanks to split government.

As mentioned, Senate Republicans have repeatedly brought the state to the brink of a government shutdown three times in the span of four years. Because of their selfishness, the Legislature has become less effective and credible as an institution. Lawmakers are spending more time in Olympia while getting less done.

This has had unhealthy ramifications for everyone in Washington, but it’s been especially tough on the lawmakers themselves and the staff who support them.

Increasingly, when I ask lawmakers “How’s it going down there?”, the answer I get back is: “Brutal”. The incessant sparring and lack of progress on matters of concern to the seven million plus inhabitants of the region’s largest state is taking a big toll on the morale and emotional health of the people who work in our statehouse.

It’s also been wasteful with respect to resources. Washingtonians could understand if special sessions were being called to give legislators more time to devise solutions to stubbornly persistent problems like our regressive tax code.

But that’s not why special sessions have become so common. They’ve become common because Senate Republicans have deliberately conspired to keep Washington in a perpetually manufactured fiscal crisis.

If the Senate Republicans lose power later this year,, the dynamics of the Senate will dramatically change… for the better. Instead of having an adversarial relationship with the Governor and the House, the Senate would have a friendly relationship. There would be be a lot of opportunities for cooperation.

Cooperation trumps competition when it comes to governing. If that is what voters want to see, as opposed to more of the gridlock we’ve had over the past few years, then they will have to change the composition of the Senate to get it.

Such a change could be very liberating — even for the Republicans. As it stands now, the Senate Republicans are already behaving like an opposition caucus. If they lose their majority, that is what they would actually become. They would cease to become responsible for the management of the Senate, but they would still have the ability to influence policy bills and budgets, just like the House Republicans. They could grandstand to their heart’s content without paralyzing the Legislature.

Washington has struggled with split government for four and a half years now. Rodney Tom looks at the results of the power coup he engineered with the Senate Republicans, and he likes what he sees. But then, he sees what he wants to see. He’s become very disconnected from the Eastside voters he used to represent.

Since choosing not to run for reelection three years ago, he’s become a Republican operative, managing an attack PAC that unsuccessfully attempted to defeat incumbent Supreme Court Justices Barbara Madsen and Charlie Wiggins.

Meanwhile, voters in his district have sent increasingly progressive Democrats to represent them in Olympia. They, like their neighbors in the 45th and 41st, value pragmatism and progress, which we won’t see if Tom’s status quo persists.

On Tuesday evening, we’ll get an inclination of where at least some of the voters in the 45th stand — and consequently, where our state may be headed.


One Comment

  1. Posted July 31st, 2017 at 7:09 AM | Permalink

    People who say that want “divided government” really want the government to look like DC, where the GOP is in total power.

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